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Ask a Book Question: The 38th in a Series (The Fiction of LA)

Edan writes in with this question:In preparation for this novel I'd like to write, I am restricting (most) of my reading to novels/stories about Los Angeles. So far, I've read the very entertaining and very haunting The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy, and am just now starting Southland by Nina Revoyr. Can you recommend some good LA fiction? Many people have already suggested Nathanael West and John Fante, and of course [Raymond] Chandler, but I'm more interested in contemporary stuff, a la Joan Didion (but not her, since I've already read her). And, I don't want Hollywood crap either... So, yes, character and landscape driven. Any ideas?The two books that I've read that immediately come to mind are The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle and Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. I know you've read Jamesland [ed. We led a book club about it way back when], and I'm guessing you'd like books that treat Los Angeles in a similar way. In Jamesland, the "Hollywood" aspect is present but peripheral, which I think is true to the experience of many who live in Los Angeles. The book relies more on the main characters and on the setting, in this case the quiet neighborhoods on the east side of LA. The Tortilla Curtain is similarly character driven, and only a few of the characters have ties to Hollywood. (I remember one character is the guy who does the booming voiceovers for movie previews: "In a world, etc. etc."). The book follows two couples, well-off suburbanites and illegal aliens whose lives intersect in the hills and canyons just up the coast from Santa Monica, which are peppered with mansions and gated communities.Anybody else got recommendations? Press the comment button.
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Ask a Book Question: The 37th in a Series (Prater? Violet?)

Linara writes in with a question about Christopher Isherwood's classic, Prater Violet:What does the title Prater Violet imply? what is Prater Violet?The Prater is a large public park in Vienna that contains amusement park rides, a planetarium and other attractions. (Learn more about The Prater here) The book Prater Violet is about the filming of a fictional musical of the same name which is set in the Vienna Prater. The novel is a stinging satire of Hollywood which places the vapid melodrama of the musical against the backdrop of the real world tragedy of the encroaching Nazi menace in Austria in the 1930s. As was typical of Isherwood, he based one of the characters in the book, a young screenwriter, on himself. If anyone else knows more about Prater Violet please leave a comment.
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Ask a Book Question: The 36th in a Series (Beyond Eco, Way Beyond Da Vinci)

John writes in with this question:Anyway, I have a question about a book: As an Umberto Eco fan, and having read Foucault's Pendulum and loved it, I am skittish about becoming physically ill if I read The Da Vinci Code. Should I be worried? Did Eco already write the book and Brown stupidize it? That's the impression I get.I haven't read The Da Vinci Code, but I suspect that you would find it entertaining but not, shall we say, satisfying. Read it, or don't. But how about some other books that you might enjoy which are more substantial and pleasurably complex (and much of this is just speculation because I haven't read all of these books): First, I'd like to recommend two childrens' series that - though they are written for kids - are loaded with allegory that make them rich reading, or rereading, for adults. They are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and CS Lewis' classic the The Chronicles of Narnia. I know, Narnia, it sounds ridiculous, but I reread the series as an adult and found the books to be full of intricacies to be mined. From the grown-up side of things, I'm told that Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon might fit the bill, as will his more recent, and enormous, Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, & The System of the World). If you don't mind a bit of a tropical lilt to your complex, fantastical fiction, I highly recommend trying out some magical realism. The The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is a terrific, meandering tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is similarly enjoyable, and you can't go wrong with the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. I may be getting a bit far afield here... anyone else want to chime in?
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Ask a Book Question: The 35th in a Series (Oprah’s Classics)

Joan writes in with this question:I loved the regular Oprah Book Club and her Classics selections have made wonderful new or re-reading. The last Oprah Classic I know of is Anna Karenina, last summer. Can you tell me if there have been more recent Oprah Classics? Thanks so much.Much as I am tempted, I'll spare my readership another discussion on the pros and cons of Oprah's Book Club. (The short answer is that I think it's good. You can read why here.) Oprah relaunched her famed book club in the summer of 2003 with John Steinbeck's East of Eden and since then has recommended six books to her viewers. Oprah selected Alan Paton's somewhat forgotten novel about South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country in September 2003. She opened 2004 by recommending Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude followed by The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers in April 2004. In June of 2004 Oprah recommended Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I remember being struck by Oprah's bookselling power when I saw dozens of copies of Anna Karenina for sale at New Jersey Turnpike rest stops that summer next to John Grisham and Sue Grafton novels. Oprah has made only one pick since then: Pearl S. Buck's epic about China, The Good Earth. She hasn't made a selection in a while so you may want to look out for a new Oprah pick soon. You can bookmark this page to keep track of all her selections. Thanks for the question!
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Ask a Book Question: The 34th in a Series (Literary Science)

Brian sent me an email asking if we could recommend some books:I've been wanting to read some science books lately, anything from pop-science Oliver Sacks type stuff, to the more esoteric... from astronomy to geology to bird-watching to physics, etc... I just don't know where to start. You have any suggestions?Oliver Sacks is a good author to start with, but there are a lot of other readable science books out there. One of my favorites is Jared Diamond's Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, which shows how the earth's geography can explain why civilizations arose where they did. Diamond's brand new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is getting good reviews, too. John McPhee also has some books that might work for you. Annals of the Former World is a 700 page layman's guide to the geology of the United States and The Control of Nature is a collection of essays about man's attempts to tame and make use of natural resources. Brian Greene's bestseller about string theory, The Elegant Universe rather painlessly delivers complex physics, and Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire explains how plants have evolved to use us as much as we use them creating a counter-intuitive symbiotic relationship. Beyond those you can't go wrong with Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, and Edward O. Wilson. If please anyone else has suggestions, leave a comment.
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Ask a Book Question: The 33nd in a Series (Presidential Reading)

Harry writes in with this question about Kennedy's reading habits.I have read that one of JFK's favorite books was about the social mores of the English Royalty and their attitudes toward the commoners. Would you be able tell me anything about that?Americans like to get to know their presidents. We hear about their stature (Lincoln tall, Madison short), their culinary preferences (Reagan liked jellybeans, Bush the first hated broccoli), and their reading habits. In 2003 Bill Clinton gave reporters this list of his favorite books. Reagan was reported to have liked That Printer of Udell's by Harold Bell Wright and Witness by Whittaker Chambers. Growing up, Ford loved Horatio Alger. JFK was known to have a predilection for books, and many of his biographers have reported that his favorite book was Pilgrim's Way the autobiography of John Buchan, which I think might be the book you were looking for. The book wasn't about British royalty, though, so I'm not sure it's the book you were referring to. It was about the British aristocracy. Buchan was a Scottish spy novelist, one of the early ones, penning thrillers during the WWI era. But Pilgrim's Way was a more personal departure from his typical work. Thomas Maier's The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings includes this passage: "While Kathleen Kennedy partied and enjoyed the company of young British squires, her brother John devoured lessons about the aristocracy from his English friends and from such books as Pilgrim's Way." Apparently, Kennedy was a big fan of Buchan's books and he quoted them often in speeches. For more on Buchan have a look at this essay from New Criterion and there's the John Buchan Society. While most sources say that Pilgrim's Way was JFK's favorite book, this list at Amazon, which is supposedly drawn from a 1961 issue of Life, puts another Buchan book, Montrose as his favorite. Still, I'm not convinced that I found the book that Harry was looking for, so if anyone has a better answer to this question, please let us know.
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Ask a Book Question: The 32nd in a Series (To Jest or Not to Jest)

Millions contributor and all-around great guy, Emre, wrote in with this question:Have you read or heard anything on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace? I am debating whether or not to wrestle with it after Don Quixote and cannot decide if it will exhaust or enthrall me...I have never read Infinite Jest, though it has been recommended to me many times by many people. From what I know of the book, you should probably expect it to both exhaust and enthrall you. I also think you are right to compare it with Don Quixote in terms of the reading experience. I find reading the bigger, more challenging books to be rewarding, but I like to throw some less weighty tomes into the mix as well. As far as Infinite Jest goes, if you want some deeper insight into what reading this book will be like, I suggest you read a series of posts that Scott Esposito wrote when he tackled Infinite Jest a few months ago. Here they are in order: Infinite Jest Initiate, The Jest and I, Infinite Jest Continued, Infinite Jest -- So What the Hell is It About?, Infinite Jest, and finally Top 10 Books of 2004: #1. So, Emre, let us know what you decide to do. And anyone out there who has read the book, please leave a comment with your thoughts.
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Ask a Book Question: The 31st in a Series (Who is Wells Tower?)

Lou writes in trying to track down some info on a young writer:What can you tell me about the writer Wells Tower? I've only seen three published works by him, but his writing is quite amazing. His piece in the newest Pushcart Prize was brilliant.I hadn't heard of Wells Tower before Lou wrote in with this question, but after doing a little research, and reading some of his work, I would definitely say that Tower is a writer to keep an eye on. When his first published story appeared in the Paris Review in 2001, Tower was in the MFA program at Columbia according to Maud Newton's interview with the executive editor of the Review, Brigid Hughes. Since then he has continued to do well. His Pushcart prizewinning story "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" appears in The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and he has a story in McSweeney's 14. He has also written some substantial non-fiction for the Washington Post Magazine, including a great article called The Deep End -- "At 13, George Romero is beginning to navigate a world of romance, danger and possibility. The Wheaton-Glenmont Pool is a good place to start." And another called Rhyme & Reason -- "Can a rapper whose street cred is complicated by a college degree become the next big thing in hip-hop?" The only other thing I was able to dig up on Tower is that he was once in a band called Hellbender. If Mr. Tower ever happens upon this blog, I hope he will email me so we can find out what he's up to. Thanks for the question, Lou! Keep them coming everybody!Update: A number of Tower's pieces are now available at his publisher's website. In addition, Tower's short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned comes out in March. He also appeared in our Year in Reading in 2008.
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Ask a Book Question: The 30th in a Series (Lists of Books)

Jason writes in with this question:Is there a single site just listing new releases from a wide range of publishers?Oh, how I wish there were. For the longest time I couldn't figure out why no one seems to keep lists like this. There are scads of places you can find new music releases, but websites that do this for books are basically non-existent. After I started working at the book store I realized why, 99.9 percent of new books do not have a "hard" release date. That is, publishers do not tell everyone in advance that a book will be out on a certain date. Instead, they just ship them out when they're ready. Usually the best information you can get is that a book will be out some time during a certain month. Sometimes you can go to Amazon and see this in action. They might list a release date a couple of weeks from now, but you will see that the book is already in stock. This is because Amazon.com sets the release date towards the end of the expected release window so that customers will not be disappointed by a book that is past its release date and still unavailable. At the brick and mortar stores, you will sometimes find that one store has gotten a given book in before another store because the publisher takes its time getting the shipments out. There are, of course, exceptions to all of this. Any major book, say something by a bestselling author or an ex-President or maybe the next Oprah book, will have a "street date" dictated by the publisher. Bookstores often receive the books prior to the street date, but they can get in trouble for selling them too early. The big books are released on a specific day so that publishers can get the most out of the highly concentrated media blitz that they orchestrate for them. Because of these irregularities it's impossible to put together a weekly list and very difficult to put together a monthly list. When you consider that 175,000 books were released in 2003 (according to Bowker), the possibility of any sort of comprehensive list is daunting. Having said all that, there is one website that manages to produce a decent list, which I use from time to time. You'll find that it only lists the most prominent couple of hundred fiction books in a given year. But it gives you a good idea of what's on tap. It's called Overbooked.org. If anyone has come across a better site please enlighten us. Thanks for the question, Jason!
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Ask a Book Question: The 29th in a Series (I Coulda Been a Contendah)

Christian writes in to ask about a Hollywood star crossing over into the literary world:What's this talk about a novel (co)written by the late Marlon Brando soon to be published?This is a story that has surfaced because of developments at last week's Frankfurt Book Fair. Apparently years ago Brando toyed with the idea of turning a film treatment of his into a novel. He and a co-writer, Donald Cammell, worked on it, but the project was shelved. Sonny Mehta, the editor at Knopf, recently discovered that the project was still viable and, after discussing it with the interested parties, has pushed forward with the project. The novel is about pirates (natch), and it will be called Fan-tan. Look for it a year from now. Here's the full story at the NY Post. The late Brando's novel won't be the first by someone better known for their work in Hollywood. Ethan Hawke has been penning novels for a while now as has Steve Martin. There are probably many others as well. I think that when one becomes famous enough, fame that's limited to one area of creative endeavor becomes insufficient. Hence actors become directors, singers become actors, politicians become novelists, and so on. Call it extending the brand.